Frederick Douglass Project: Jay Thompson's Essay "Toward Douglassonian Abolitionism: The Rift Between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison"

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Intern: Jay Thompson
Essay: Toward Douglassonian Abolitionism: The Rift Between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison
Spring 2002
Faculty Advisor: Professor Robert Westbrook

Letters used: 89; 104
Transcriptions: 89; 104

Over the course of his lifetime, Frederick Douglass was both exposed to and influenced by a wide variety of people. He began his life in slavery as Frederick Bailey, and while a slave he encountered several different masters who ranged from mild-mannered to the outright vicious. Following his escape from slavery, he joined forces with William Lloyd Garrison and became part of the Garrisonian antislavery circle. Later, he visited Great Britain and developed a group of friends among abolitionists there as well. Upon his return, he asserted his independence and began to break away from Garrison. He started his own newspaper, and came into contact with all different kinds of people. While he was changing locations and occupations, his views were constantly changing as well. Many of these changes can best be examined by looking at them with respect to his relationship with Garrison, and how it changed over time. Douglass's views from the time that he met Garrison to the time that they had a falling out changed considerably, sometimes dramatically. Using his relationship with Garrison as a focus for comparison, one can see how Douglass's views changed over time, as his relationship with Garrison altered.

Before Douglass met Garrison, his experiences among educated people were very limited. Douglass himself was mainly a self-educated man. He received his first lessons from Sophia Auld, the wife of one of his masters. After her husband found out about the lessons, however, he put a stop to them because he understood the dangers to the institution of slavery that educated slaves posed. Though Sophia Auld stopped giving him lessons, she had instilled a thirst for knowledge that he constantly tried to quench for the rest of his life. Douglass took advantage of every opportunity that came along to gain knowledge. He learned from listening to white children recite their school lessons while he was still a slave, and he eventually got his hands on a copy of the Columbian Orator, a widely-used book for children learning to read and speak eloquently. He would later say that the Columbian Orator "gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance." The book was filled with speeches by famous people including a few passages regarding slavery. Many have argued that it was from the Columbian Orator that Douglass began to realize that slavery was not something that was set in stone, but rather something that he could attempt to change. For example, in it there was selection titled "Dialogue Between a Master and Slave." The dialogue consisted of a slave reasoning with his master about the injustices of slavery, and in the end, the slave convinced his master to the point that the master freed him from slavery. This obviously must have been a very powerful piece for Douglass, planting the thought that through reason, change was possible.

This belief must have been further nourished by Douglass's interactions with Garrison. Garrison was arguably the premier anti-slavery advocate of the time. He had helped organize the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1831, as well as the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. On January 1, 1831 he began his own abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. He was just the person to help further Douglass's anti-slavery education. Garrison recognized, in turn, how valuable Douglass could be to his cause. After hearing Douglass speak, Garrison convinced the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to hire him as an agent so that Douglass could tour with him and tell people everywhere his personal story, in hopes that his tales of the horrors of slavery would persuade others that it was an evil institution. Together, they toured all over the North. Oftentimes they encountered racism directed towards Douglass, but Garrison was a loyal companion. Many times he declined privileges that were not also offered to Douglass, and he stood behind Douglass when things got out of hand. Nothing solidifies a friendship like such shared hardships, and in the beginning, the two did appear to be good friends. During these early years, there was an apparent mutual respect between the two men. Douglass wrote that Garrison was "one, on first sight, to excite my love and reverence." Similarly, Garrison wrote in the Preface to Douglass' Narrative that "I think I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment," referring to Douglass's first speech about his personal experiences. And yet though they apparently had a great deal of respect for one another, as time went on, the two began to grow apart.

After Douglass had been touring with Garrison for a while, a common accusation began to be leveled at him. Critics said that Douglass spoke too well to have been a slave, and some doubted his story as a result. Garrison and others had recommended to Douglass that he should try to talk more like an ex-slave, saying that white audiences in the North were more likely to be won over by him if he sounded less educated. Douglass, however, was proud of the way that he talked, so rather than give in to his critics and dumb down his speeches in order to sound less intelligent, he did nearly the polar opposite. He decided to put his stories into writing, to prove that not only were his stories true, but also to demonstrate how intelligent he was. The book that he wrote was the first of his three autobiographies. He called it Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. In the title it is quite apparent that one of the reasons he wrote it was to quash the rumors that he did not live the life about which he was constantly giving speeches. He distinctly says in the title that he was, indeed, a slave and that he was the one who wrote the Narrative, as opposed to merely telling his story to a scribe.

Because of some of the stories that Douglass told in his Narrative, Garrison and his other anti-slavery friends arranged for him to go on a speaking tour in Great Britain prior to its publication. By writing his autobiography, Douglass was admitting that he was a runaway slave, and inviting his master and others to try and take him back into slavery. Garrison and others recognized this threat, and thought that it would be best for him to get away for a while. Also, there was a strong anti-slavery group in England that was eager to see Douglass in person. It was a plan that worked out well for both parties. In the evolution of Douglass's ideas, his trip to Great Britain would be a turning point for him.
In England Douglass saw many things that he only dreamed about in America. Most important, for the first time in his life he was treated as a man rather than as a slave, a former slave, or a black man. He was given the opportunity to be much more independent, a change from constant scheduling by Garrison and others back home. He made many good friends in England, so much so that he considered staying there indefinitely. In the end, his family among other things drew him back, but when he returned to the United States he was a different person. The seeds of thought cultivated by Garrison had been further nourished in England, and with the support of his new English friends, he felt that he was ready to be more independent back home as well.

His quest for independence was most apparent in his desire to start his own newspaper. He had told his friends in England of his wish to do so, and they highly encouraged it. Indeed, they raised the money for him to get the venture off the ground. They also raised the money necessary for him to formally buy his freedom from his old master, thereby eliminating the threat of a return to slavery. Also, one English friend, Julia Griffiths, eventually came to America to assist Douglass with his venture. She was an adamant supporter of Douglass, and even though she was a principal financial contributor to his paper, she allowed him to run it as he pleased. There is little question of the sincerity of their friendship, though some questions regarding the extent of their relationship did arise. Griffiths lived with Douglass and his family for a few months, and they worked very closely together. As a result, accusations were made that they had more than a friendship. Samuel Porter wrote to Douglass to inform him that such accusations existed. Douglass dismissed him, however, going as far as to say that he was disappointed in Porter for mentioning it to him at all. Eventually, Griffiths and Douglass succumbed to the pressure and Griffiths moved out and later returned to England, but she and Douglass remained close friends for the remainder of Douglass's days.

Douglass did not receive the same support from Garrison and his American associates. When Douglass told them of his plan for a newspaper they tried to talk him out of it. Garrison told him that it would be a waste for him to devote all of his time to working as an editor because his best talents were as an orator. He reminded Douglass that there were already a few newspapers in existence run by black men, so his venture could not be justified as breaking any racial barriers. He may have also feared that another paper, especially one run by Douglass, would create competition for his own paper The Liberator. For a few months, they were able to dissuade Douglass, even giving him a job as a writer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society Standard, but in the end it was to no avail. By the end of 1847, Douglass had finalized plans to begin his paper, which he would call The North Star. This was a very important moment in Douglass's relationship with Garrison. Garrison had advised Douglass against his newspaper venture, and yet he went ahead with it anyway. This was Douglass' first substantial break from Garrison, but it was not the origin of the rift that would form between them.

Earlier that same year, after he had returned home to America from England, Douglass resumed touring with Garrison. As part of a western tour, both men visited cities in Ohio, and there two important events occurred that would eventually lead Douglass further away from Garrison. The first was Douglass's introduction to Joshua Giddings, a Congressman from Ohio. During a Western Anti-Slavery Society meeting, both Douglass and Garrison debated Giddings on the merits of the Constitution. Douglass and Garrison, like all Garrisonians, believed that the Constitution was a proslavery document and that it was in the best interests of the Northern states to attempt to dissolve the Union. Giddings, on the other hand, was a supporter of the Constitution, although he was also an extremely active anti-slavery advocate. He believed that slavery was wrong, but that it could be done away with within the framework of the existing Constitution. Over the next few years, Douglass became more and more influenced by Giddings, and eventually he would pull away from Garrison on this issue.

The second important event that occurred on their western tour was that Garrison came down with a severe illness. He was so sick that he could not continue traveling. At first, Douglass did not want to leave Garrison behind, but Garrison insisted. Garrison did not object when Douglass eventually did continue on with out him, but he was upset later that Douglass did not inquire about his health. In a letter to his wife he wrote that "is it not strange that [Frederick] Douglass has not written a single line to me, or to any one, in this place, inquiring after my health, since he left me on a bed of illness?" Though it is true that Douglass never wrote directly to Garrison, there is some debate about whether he wrote to anyone else asking about his condition. In a letter sent to Garrison by Samuel May on October 8, 1847 May informed Garrison of the "sorrow and suspense" that Douglass felt over Garrison's illness. Possibly Garrison had not received it by the time that he wrote to his wife. Either way, Garrison was obviously hurt by what he considered to be Douglass's inconsiderate silence.

Garrison's attitude towards Douglass's lack of concern for his health raises an interesting question about mentor relationships. Garrison had taken Douglass under his wing, and he felt that he deserved a certain degree of loyalty and consideration as a result. Douglass on the other hand had grown under Garrison's watch, and was ready for independence. Looking at the situation in this way, it is easy to see how the two men began to grow apart.

There were two other aspects of the letter from Garrison to his wife that also demonstrated the developing rift between him and Douglass. Garrison wrote that he was surprised that Douglass had not asked him for his advice once he decided to start his paper. Garrison had earlier advised him against doing it altogether, but Garrison felt that it was unusual for Douglass not at least to talk it over with him. Apparently, Douglass was determined to launch his newspaper project without the help of his mentor, and Garrison took exception to it. Garrison also wrote that he believed that "Samuel Brooke is at the bottom of all this [convincing Douglass to start a newspaper], and has influenced Douglass to take this extraordinary step." Brooke was the editor of another paper that merged with that of Douglass, and it appears that Garrison believed that Douglass had been persuaded by Brooke to do so. This demonstrates some bitterness from Garrison that possibly he was no longer Douglass's adviser.

Yet even after Douglass began publishing The North Star, he and Garrison were still on good terms, even if the terms were not as good as they had once been. Douglass still referred to Garrison as a "friend" in letters , and in The Liberator Garrison both wished Douglass luck and praised him and his paper several times, and even referred to him as a "genius." However, they were not nearly as close as they had once been. Douglass commented in a letter to a personal friend of his that Garrison did not inquire about how The North Star was doing, and the tone of the letter implied that there might have been some tension between the two. Whatever tension may have existed between the two increased exponentially in May 1851. At the eighteenth annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass publicly announced that he had changed his position on the Constitution. He said that he no longer believed that the Constitution could not allow for the end of slavery. Garrison was obviously enraged by the announcement, and proclaimed that there must be "roguery somewhere." From that point on, the relationship between the two could no longer be said to be friendly. They continued attending meetings where the other was present, but they did so alone and did not interact. Douglass in writing his autobiographies recognized the important role that Garrison had played in his development and gave Garrison credit for getting him started, but he also must have recognized that their relationship would never be a pleasant one again.

Another explanation for why Douglass and Garrison grew apart can be found by looking at their anti-slavery goals. Douglass' goals were very simple: he wanted to end slavery, and he was willing to do just about anything within reason to do so. Garrison, on the other hand, was not content with merely abolishing slavery. He wanted to end it on his terms. He was much more concerned with his principles, and was not willing to switch approaches nearly as much as Douglass. An example of this can be seen by looking at Douglass's interactions with John Brown. Originally, Douglass, like all Garrisonians, was against using any form of violence in order to further the antislavery cause. After speaking with Brown, however, he eventually weakened his stance and accepted that violence in some forms was in the best interests of his cause. In particular, he said he believed that violent resistance to slave-catchers was "wise as well as just," a far cry from Garrisonian beliefs. Benjamin Quarles argues that Douglass developed into more of a compromiser, looking to reform, whereas Garrison was only interested in a revolution. Garrison believed that when Douglass began to move away from Garrisonian ideology that he was settling for less, while Douglass saw himself blossoming into a politician of sorts and recognized the need to compromise at times. Douglass said that "it is gallant to go forth single-handed, but is it wise?" in reference to Garrison's unwavering approach.

This difference of opinion between the two men also seems to indicate a deeper lack of respect that Garrison had for Douglass. Whenever Douglass did anything that went against Garrison's beliefs, Garrison was always certain that someone else had misled him, rather than giving him credit for an autonomous change of opinion. When Douglass started the paper, Garrison thought that Brooke and Douglass' British friends had influenced him. Douglass's change of opinion on the Constitution brought Garrison's accusation of "roguery" which demonstrates the little credit that he gave Douglass for thinking for himself. Even early on in his relationship with Garrison there may have been evidence of a lack of respect on Garrison's part. Years later when examining letters from Garrison, John Sekora noted that Garrison often misspelled Douglass's name in his correspondence. Interestingly, however, he spelled his name correctly when writing directly to Douglass, but often left off the second "s" in Douglass's name when writing to others. From this, it appears that it was not an inadvertent error on Garrison's part, but rather an intentional act done only behind Douglass's back, which implies that he may not have had a high level of respect for him. In Garrison's defense, he was a great activist in the Anti-Slavery movement, and he obviously played an enormous role in introducing Frederick Douglass to the world. However, it is not clear whether Garrison thought of Douglass as an equal or merely as the best instrument that he could find to further his cause.

In the life of Frederick Douglass, his relationship with Garrison was very important. Whether or not Garrison had a great deal of respect for Douglass, he did give him his start, and from there Douglass was able to work towards his own independence. Together, both men accomplished a great deal, but in the end, as time went by and Douglass became exposed to more and more different people and ideas, he was no longer happy under Garrison and his followers' tight watch. He wanted to live a free man's life to the fullest, and he believed that he would be unable to do that alongside Garrison. A degree of tension existed between the two men for the rest of their lives, but both continued to work towards the end of slavery, each in his own way.